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What are your shared values?
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  1. Adele Waters

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‘DON’T make the mistake of thinking all vets care about animal welfare,’ a vet told me last week. ‘Half the vets I trained with were hunters and if you asked them why they wanted to become vets, they would say they were interested in the technical aspects of work, or the presumed status, but not especially the animals.’

I was a bit taken aback. Up until now, I had rather taken it as read that vets care about animals and their welfare. Why else would you invest five years of your life studying to manage their health needs?

Perhaps that is naive. It is probably misguided to think everyone in a single professional group shares the same world view or adheres to any particular value consistently. While members may share unifying experiences and obligations (education, a code of practice, an oath, for example), people are complex, their value systems wide-ranging. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a ‘group think’ alignment of views.

But it is also true that when people from the same profession meet, they often bond along the lines of their shared values. They may re-connect with the values that drew them to their chosen career in the first place. But they also create a stronger negotiating position when they agree.

Journalism is no different. I’ve worked alongside journalists at both sides of the experience spectrum, but share a drink with a newbie or a hardnosed, cynical hack, and you’ll find they are motivated at the very core by a set of values, a desire to seek out truth and get to the bottom of issues.

At last week’s British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS) conference, there seemed a great deal of alignment – and passion – about the welfare of animals, including the somewhat overlooked wild animal species.

Delegates (around 270 vets including exotic and zoo specialists as well as researchers, vet students and vet nurses) talked about the disparity in the way different animal groups are regarded within our society. They talked about the decline of many types of wildlife. And they talked about the importance of disease surveillance for zoonotic health and about the culling, trapping, poisoning or shooting of animals ‘unnecessarily’.

If animal welfare isn’t a key driver for all vets (and I have yet to be persuaded this is the case) then it appears to be alive and well among this group.

Alick Simmons, a government vet for 30 years (deputy chief vet under Nigel Gibbens) used a keynote speech to urge delegates to unite over their shared values and start to campaign to protect the interests of wildlife.

Vets, he said, needed to move into the debate about ‘who owns the countryside’. If they didn’t, the landscape over which many of them cared about would be under the control of a very small number of people whose values were at odds with their own.

He spelled out four things that vets could do: (1) campaign for better wild animal welfare; (2) promote bio-diversity and bio-abundance; (3) adopt and promote the same welfare standards for all animals; and (4) campaign for the use an ethical framework for wildlife (see news story p 411).

Simmons, who recently chaired the BVA’s working group on Brexit, said leaving the EU offered a good opportunity to drive change. With the environment secretary Michael Gove also talking about Brexit as an opportunity to improve animal welfare ‘across the board’, this was the time for vets to unite and influence legislation as it came up for amendment.

An awful lot of casual routine killing of wildlife under any circumstances goes on, he said, by people who profess to know better and are unaccountable and are not working within an evidence base. ‘We need to hold landowners to account for animal welfare. And we need to make sure there is an evidence base so all methods of killing should be approved.’

Simmons, a passionate naturalist, listed many welfare concerns that he expected vets could align their thinking around – poor trapping, the culling of mountain hares to protect red grouse populations, shooting herons to protect fish populations, the killing of buzzards to protect pheasants, for example.

‘It seems to me that walking past – either metaphorically or physically – what seems to be egregious wildlife welfare is not something that a profession that professes to think that animal welfare is important should be doing,’ he said.

Whether you agree with Simmons or the first vet I mentioned at the top of this page, it is certainly true that when negotiating for legislative change, vets can magnify their influence if they work together and present a united position.

Among senior civil servants at Defra, there is an expectation that the veterinary profession will speak with one voice. If many different sets of voices start shouting in the same space, it creates difficulties and can undermine government policy and direction.

Therefore, if the veterinary world wants to enhance its influence, it does make sense to work together to align thinking around fundamental issues like animal welfare.

To that end, agreeing explicit shared values offers a good starting point.

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